A well-intentioned act of human solidarity descended into a sharply worded political diatribe against the Israeli government and Jewish settlers on Tuesday, after hundreds of Jews visited the family of the slain Arab teen in east Jerusalem to express shame and compassion.
The gathering was arranged by Tag Meir, an Israeli anti-racism organization, which charted buses to bring over 700 Jews to Muhammad Abu Khdeir parents’ mourning tent in the capital’s Shuafat neighborhood to condemn the 16-year-old’s murder by Jewish nationalists.
While the family accepted the goodwill gesture, according to Arab media reports they turned away a visit from President Shimon Peres, and patently rejected a condolence statement from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
“We refuse to accept the condolences of someone who agrees about the murder of our people in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza,” a family spokesman said of Netanyahu.
The gathering occurred after Shuafat became embroiled in riots for days following the kidnapping and brutal killing of Muhammad, whose remains were found in the Jerusalem Forest after being burnt alive on Wednesday morning.
“After this murder I felt embarrassment and shame,” said Gili Har-Tzvi, while en route from the International Convention Center to the tent. “When a person dies it is a mitzva [good deed] to come and comfort the family, and I felt that it is our duty to show them that their pain is our pain.”
Upon arriving at the Arab neighborhood, David Weiner denounced the murder as antithetical to Jewish values.
“I’m ashamed of what people did in the name of Judaism,” he said. “I can’t imagine what the family feels to have their child kidnapped and burned to death. There are no words.”
“I came here for one simple reason,” said Jerusalem resident Robby Berman. “It is abundantly clear to Arabs that Orthodox Jewish Israelis condemn the murders of the three Israeli boys, but it is not abundantly clear to Arabs that Orthodox Jewish Israelis condemn the murder of an innocent Arab.”
Rabbi Ron Kronish, who serves on Tag Meir’s steering committee, said he helped organize the gathering to show the true face of Judaism.
“The overwhelming thrust of our message is that this is not the Jewish way, and we denounce those who have committed this murder, as well as those who have been preaching and teaching them to do it,” he said.
Ellen Shoham, who said she normally does not attend demonstrations, said she felt obligated to personally express her condemnation over the murder.
“I’m here because I want to say it’s not an act that represents most Israelis, and that we are part of a much larger population who feels compelled to protest and condemn this,” she said.
“We wanted to tell the family that we are very sorry about what happened,” added Shoham’s friend, Rachel Mordechai. “That we’re ashamed.”
After arriving at the family’s mourning tent, hundreds of Jews waited in line to shake the hand of Abu Khdeir’s father, Hussein, who graciously accepted the outpouring of support through saddened blue eyes.
As the procession waited to meet Hussein, Jamal Abu Khdeir, a cousin of the family, said he was encouraged by the show of support.
“I think this is a good thing because we need people with common sense, not radicals, to take power of Israel,” he said. “I think people have to calm down and realize that all Palestinians and Israelis are not guilty. These people who burned my cousin don’t represent everyone in Israel.”
“We are going through a hard time but we will survive with the support of the Palestinian people,” added Mohieddin Abu Khdeir, another cousin who flew in from Baltimore.
Asked about the rioting and rocket fire that has ensued since the murder, Mohieddin said he understood Palestinian anger over “the occupation.”
“When people live under occupation they have a right to defend themselves,” he said. “I’m against killing, but the people here are under occupation and they are suffering.
I blame the settlers and radicals.”
Mohieddin continued: “We have a right to live on this land more than anyone else – we’ve lived here for centuries.
The Israelis came to us, we didn’t go to them.”
Despite the initial goodwill that appeared to transcend political grievances, as soon as the Jewish visitors sat to hear a speech from a family representative, the gathering quickly degenerated into political invective against the Israeli government and settlers.
Denouncing the government as “retarded” and “Satan,” one of the speakers went on to say that settlers are “born with hate in their hearts.”
Following the vitriolic pronouncements, several Jewish participants walked out of the makeshift mourners tent.
“I came in good faith and I’m upset I came,” said Berman.
“Instead of building a bridge by jointly denouncing the evil murder of an innocent human being, they’re calling us to the barricades by turning this into a political event by demonizing the government and the settlers. I didn’t come for a political event, I came to console them for their loss and say we are truly embarrassed.”
Efraim Avishaul, who missed work in Ashdod to travel to the gathering, said he “felt stupid for coming.”
“I came to say I’m sorry and I find myself in a political meeting against the Israeli government, and we came here as individuals,” he said.
“When I told my friend I was coming, he asked me how many Palestinians are going to visit the three Israeli murder victims families.”
“What I find so offensive is the politicization of sorrow,” added another Jewish attendee.